For years the Russian president has been able to act with impunity in Syria, but is a snapback just around the corner?
Will the US finally push back against Putin?
Prior to a few weeks ago, few people knew the name Yevgeny Prigozhin. The Russian businessman, who was arrested and spent years in prison during the Soviet-era, came to sudden prominence in the West when he was indicted on February 16 by the US government for managing a “troll farm” operation that sought to influence the 2016 presidential election.
Just over a week earlier, Mr Prigozhin was involved in an entirely different kind of attack on Americans. A mercenary unit from a company he reportedly funds called Wagner PMC (Private Military Company) attacked a base of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces in the Deir Ezzor region of Syria. American special forces were also stationed there and in the firefight that ensued “dozens” of the Russians were killed or wounded.
As average westerners came to learn more about Mr Prigozhin’s closeness to Mr Putin, his humble beginnings as a hot dog vendor and his multi-billion dollar media empire, the extraordinary details of Russia’s costly miscalculation in the Deir Ezzor attack trickled out. Recordings indicating the scope of the attack have been made public which suggest the toll was much higher, perhaps more than 200 men.
It’s a dramatic story. More so when you consider how inflammatory such a direct US-Russian battle might have been at any other moment in the past 70 years. Or that the man behind the mercenaries was seen as so close to the Russian leader as to be an extension of him. It is almost impossible to imagine that Mr Prigozhin would have taken either of his potentially explosive operations against the US without Mr Putin’s knowledge and approval. Indeed, it is virtually certain both operations were funded thanks to Mr Putin.
Mr Putin has been emboldened by America’s reluctance to respond forcefully to him for years. When George W Bush was president, he took parts of Georgia with negative consequences he could easily manage. When Barack Obama was president, the same was true in Ukraine. Also during the Obama years, Mr Putin began to support Bashar Al Assad and his depraved war against his own people. Horrific weapons have been used against the Syrian people with the support of the Russians. Today in Ghouta, near Damascus, one of the world’s worst humanitarian catastrophes is unfolding.
Throughout his Syria experience, first under Mr Obama and later under Mr Trump, Mr Putin has found he could act with virtual impunity. Occasionally the US would issue a strongly worded statement or make a military gesture. But most of America’s body language, starting with Mr Obama’s failure to follow through on his assertion that would Syria to use chemical weapons that would be crossing a “red-line” that would demand US action – has been interpreted by Mr Putin as a green light to support Mr Al Assad and his own geopolitical ambitions while playing entirely by his own rules.
Mr Putin no doubt felt that with the election of Mr Trump he would have even more licence. And why not? He tampered with the US election process and Mr Trump not only defended him, he cheered him on and treated Mr Putin and his emissaries with a respect and deference he offers few others in the world. In Syria, Mr Trump has done likewise, even going so far as to sweep this Russian attack on US special forces under the rug.
But the US is more than its presidents. And while Mr Putin may have had Mr Obama’s number and understood Mr Trump’s weaknesses, Mr Prigozhin’s initiatives may both have brought him into contact with forces he had not reckoned on operating independently of the US president. Mr Prigozhin’s election meddling has been called out by a special counsel whose investigation seems certain to draw a devastating picture of Russian culpability quite apart from whatever it may say about Mr Trump and his team. There he is up against the professionals of the US Justice Department and Intelligence Community. In Syria, Mr Trump notwithstanding, the Wagner mercenaries went too far in attacking US Special Forces, more than their match. Mr Putin may have thought he could send a message to the US to back off, but attacking the US military may presage bigger problems to come.
Mr Putin is counting on Americans reluctant to stand-up to him. But it now seems certain, that whether Mr Trump survives the investigations into him or not, very soon the hugely unpopular president will be gone. Whether that is in a few months or a couple years, his successor is very likely, thanks to interventions like both of those cited here, to come back much harder against Russia. In fact, Mr Putin like all world leaders needs be wary of the snap back that will follow Mr Trump, as his successors undo and reverse what are seen as his most tainted policies.
Does that mean the US will finally push back on Mr Putin and Mr Al Assad militarily? That is uncertain but it grows more likely with events like those at Deir Ezzor. But will they finally work hard with US allies to squeeze Mr Putin with much more aggressive sanctions and political pressure? Count on it.
The result is that Russia’s cold warrior president may well have unwittingly prompted a second act in the Cold War and restored the spine to an adversary that has let him, his cronies and his allies get away with too much for too long.